Confronting Childhood, 'Dance Of Reality' Touches Yet Somehow Misses The Mark
While he’s been absent from the screen for a long time, 85-year-old filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky is making a comeback. Now the subject of Jodorowsky’s Dune, a new documentary about a film he never made, he also has a new film of his own.
French-Chilean-Ukranian Jewish director Alejandro Jodorowsky got famous in the 1970s for El Topo and The Holy Mountain, a couple of movies with serious late-night cult appeal. He showed a surreal imagination that struck a chord at the time, especially among counterculture types. Jodorowsky’s new movie The Dance of Reality, obviously comes at a different stage of his life.
It’s his first film in 23 years, and it’s very much the work of someone looking back more than forward.
The Dance of Reality is at least partly autobiographical. The picture takes place in a Chilean town called Tocopilla and centers on Jodorowsky as a young boy, who once in a while gets a visit from his now 85-year-old self, played by himself. Young Jodorowsky was often tormented. He had a tyrannical father, Jaime, played by Jodorowsky’s own son Brontis Jodorowsky. Jaime is a Communist who has hung a picture of Stalin in the family living room. He even looks like Stalin, and he spends a lot of time snapping at young Alejandro for not being a real man. Alejandro’s mother never speaks; she sings – in operatic style – and she wears scoop neck dresses to show off her considerable bosom.
I think the movie wants to be shocking, and it shows things you don’t often see in movies – the mother urinating on her husband, fully graphic scenes of torture during the Nazi period. But somehow, The Dance of Reality doesn’t seem terribly shocking, as if it’s trying too hard and not getting there. It can be touching, but at the same time, parts of the movie feel past their prime.
The picture can also feel bitter and resentful instead of perceptive. There may be plenty for Jodorowsky to feel bitter about. Over and over, young Alejandro stands as the outsider; he’s the Jew and other characters in the town call him names, bait and threaten him, or attack the family’s shop. These are important scenes, but they stay opaque; the film doesn’t find a way to penetrate their surfaces, to show what’s inside these people, or what’s inside the town itself.
The film does have astonishing moments though. Present-day Jodorowsky brings beautiful comfort to his childhood self. After Alejandro’s father Jaime has been beaten; a Catholic priest offers a tarantula instead of help. But then Jaime staggers into the workshop of a thoroughly Christ-like carpenter, a furniture maker who feeds him and with kindness heals Jaime, although only part way.
The young boy’s intimate connection to his mother catches the delicate balance of maternal love and sexuality between mother and son. The great sequence in the movie begins with the boy’s nightmare. The mother takes his clothes off, then hers, and paints their naked bodies black. They do a dance about the monster of the dark, until the mother disappears into the background and the aged Jodorowsky says that never again did he fear the night.
All through The Dance of Reality, I thought about Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, a film about his childhood that weaves memory with fantasy. The two films share how childhood memories are carried into adult life – how, in those memories we’re at the same time that child and our present adult selves. Both Amarcord and The Dance of Reality are entranced by sex and politics. Both filmmakers lived through times of fascism. But in Amarcord the exaggerated images of remembered events come naturally and with a lovely harmony.
Fellini remembers himself as part of a community. Amarcord is about shared experience – it’s a town full of loveable eccentrics. Fascism comes as a disruption from the outside. For Alejandro Jodorowsky in The Dance of Reality, hatred and exclusion come from the inside. He’s never a full member of a community; he can’t find comfort in his society because he’s the scapegoat, and that can make for an affecting, but less charming movie.